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Microsoft opens up its underwater datacentre

Microsoft opens up its underwater datacentre

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty



The Project Natick team deployed the Northern Isles datacentre in 35m of water in spring 2018. Over the last two years, the team has tested and monitored the performance and reliability of the datacentre’s servers.

The team hypothesized that a sealed container on the ocean floor could provide ways to improve the overall reliability of datacentres. On land, corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations and bumps and jostles from people who replace broken components are all variables that can contribute to equipment failure. The Northern Isles deployment confirmed the hypothesis with lessons for Microsoft’s datacentre sustainability strategy around energy, waste and water, said Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group who leads Project Natick.

The project showed a reliability eight times higher than that of datacentres on land. Out of the 864 servers in the underwater datacentre, only a handful failed.

This higher reliability has prompted discussions with a Microsoft team in Azure deploying and operating tactical and critical datacentres anywhere in the world using post-quantum encryption technology.

“We are populating the globe with edge devices, large and small,” said William Chappell, vice president of mission systems for Azure. “To learn how to make datacentres reliable enough not to need human touch is a dream of ours.”

More than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the coast, so putting datacentres underwater near coastal cities reduces the latency. The cool subsurface seas also allow for energy-efficient datacentre designs. For example, they can use heat-exchange plumbing such as that found on submarines.

“We are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go and prove out some more,” said Cutler. “We have done what we need to do. Natick is a key building block for the company to use if it is appropriate.”

Next: Opening the underwater datacentre


The datacentre was opened at Global Energy Group’s Nigg Energy Park facility in the North of Scotland. The container with 864 servers in 12 racks of servers with related cooling system infrastructure had been filled with dry nitrogen and connected to the Orkney Island power grid, which is supplied 100% by renewable energy technologies. It was built by the Naval Group and its subsidiary Naval Energies, experts in naval systems and marine renewable energy. Green Marine, an Orkney Island-based firm, supported Naval Group and Microsoft on the deployment, maintenance, monitoring and retrieval of the datacentre.

Among the components crated up and sent to Redmond are a handful of failed servers and related cables. The researchers think this hardware will help them understand why the servers in the underwater datacenter are eight times more reliable than those on land. The team hypothesizes that the atmosphere of nitrogen, which is less corrosive than oxygen, and the absence of people to bump and jostle components, are the primary reasons for the difference. If the analysis proves this correct, the team may be able to translate the findings to land datacenters.

“Our failure rate in the water is one-eighth of what we see on land,” Cutler said.“I have an economic model that says if I lose so many servers per unit of time, I’m at least at parity with land,” he added. “We are considerably better than that.”

“We have been able to run really well on what most land-based datacentres consider an unreliable grid,” said Spencer Fowers, a principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s Special Projects research group. “We are hopeful that we can look at our findings and say maybe we don’t need to have quite as much infrastructure focused on power and reliability.”

Cutler is already thinking of scenarios such as co-locating an underwater datacentre with an offshore windfarm. Even in light winds, there would likely be enough power for the datacentre. As a last resort, a powerline from shore could be bundled with the fibre optic cabling needed to transport data.

Other sustainability related benefits may include eliminating the need to use replacement parts. In a lights-out datacentre, all the servers would be swapped out about once every five years. The high reliability of the servers means that the few that fail early are simply taken offline. In addition, Project Natick has shown that datacentres can be operated and kept cool without tapping freshwater resources, Cutler noted. “Now Microsoft is going down the path of finding ways to do this for land datacentres,” he said.

Early conversations about the potential future of Project Natick centered on how to scale up underwater datacenters to power the full suite of Microsoft Azure cloud services, which may require linking together a dozen or more vessels the size of the Northern Isles.

“As we are moving from generic cloud computing to cloud and edge computing, we are seeing more and more need to have smaller datacentres located closer to customers instead of these large warehouse datacentres out in the middle of nowhere,” said Fowers.

Next: Post-quantum encryption


That’s one of the reasons Chappell’s group in Azure is keeping an eye on the progress of Project Natick, including tests of post-quantum encryption technology that could secure data from  sensitive and critical sectors. The ability to protect data is core to the mission of Azure in multiple industries.

“The fact that they were very quickly able to deploy it and it has worked as long as it has and it has the level of encryption on the signals going to it combines to tell a pretty compelling vision of the future,” said Chappell.

www.microsoft.com

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